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Theatre is an easy target for a little light hearted ribbing. Most vulnerable to attack is the actor, the all too serious thespian fretting about his craft. But here there’s a twist: it’s the playwright that gets the hardest time in I, Lear
Very few of theatre’s big guns are spared the digs and jibes. Tennessee Williams, Alan Bennett, Pinter and Chekhov all get lampooned and while Andrew Jones and Ciaran Murtagh comedy duo Black Sheep – might be swiping at the obvious, they do so with aplomb. The hilarity is infectious and overflows from stage to stalls. These may be predictable pleasures but the way in which they are handled gives the audience a real comic buzz.
The duo play a pair of aging hams, Hugh Carpenter and Chester Blenheim, who cannot help but hark back to their halcyon days. Hugh is the more high-strung of the two while Chester is something of a cad. Together they lecture the audience on the tricks of treading the boards. I, Lear comes to this dinky West End venue on the back of Edinburgh success and it has a Fringe quality that doesn’t quite work in these more polished and plush surroundings. Consistency is an issue; there are disappointing moments and the energy of the piece ebbs and flows.
But when it works, it works well. Jones and Murtagh are accomplished stage clowns and the latter comes up trumps in a skit on Greek theatre, while Jones shines in his riff on Alan Bennett. Though their strongest moments are when they are performing separately, their absurd, final, car-crash renderings of Cats and King Lear bring the show to a close in a suitably hilarious fashion.
This is an entertaining but patchy piece of theatre. For every joke that hits home, there is one that doesn’t quite hit the mark and a scene revolving around Tennessee Williams’ heroines, in which the pair drag up, seems dull and predictable besides the level of invention on display elsewhere. There were also some half-hearted attempts at audience participation that felt as if they could have been more daring and better developed, especially as both performers seem to be competent improvisers. Instead these moments were underused and abruptly cut short, making one wonder why they bothered including them at all.
Even at 70 minutes the show seems a little stretched, seemingly running low on material at times, but every time it veered off course, the performers, and co-writer and director Cal McCrystal, managed to steer things straight and the show contains enough enjoyable characterisation, amusing in-jokes,intelligent theatrical allusion and general silliness to keep an audience happy. I, Lear had a handful of proper laugh aloud moments coupled with a warm love of the medium that it was mocking, a combination that proved rather endearing and infectious.